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Will the NFL ever have a running back like Marshall Faulk again?

Has football changed too much to even allow a “Faulk” to happen again?

St. Louis Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe it now, but Marshall Faulk’s Hall of Fame trajectory did not even really begin to take flight until after five seasons and a trade from the Indianapolis Colts to the St. Louis Rams in 1999. These days, it is all too common for fans to assume that running backs are not physically capable of playing more than four years in the league, but ironically many would amend that statement if the player is capable of also catching passes.

Somehow if you’re purely a runner, your career lifespan is assumed to be shorter and less valuable than if you’re also (and mostly) a receiver.

Well, Marshall Faulk could do both at an elite level. Did something happen to running back bodies from the Jim Brown era to the Walter Payton era to the Marshall Faulk era to the Adrian Peterson era that suddenly made it impossible to handle a full workload for more than one or two seasons?

Payton, for example, averaged 370 touches per season from age 22 to age 27, covering years 2-7 in his Bears career. But he also averaged 381 touches per season from age 29-32, covering years 9-12 in his career. Payton played a 13th season in 1987, which is when he did start to show signs of decline.

Faulk started 121 games over his first eight years in the NFL, averaging 338 touches per season and he played in all 16 games five times in that span. Faulk also played in another 12 career postseason games and was heavily utilized most of the time. He was a starter for the Rams in 2004 at the age of 31, then a backup in 2005 before retiring after that season.

Is it really impossible for a running back can be good into his 30s anymore?

Writers at Sharp Football Analysis recently had a discussion about one of the top running backs in the NFL today, Christian McCaffrey, and said that he was “This era’s Marshall Faulk.”

But is that even possible anymore? McCaffrey still has a long ways to go to prove something like that.

McCaffrey didn’t miss any games over the first three years of his career, culminating in a 2019 season in which he had 403 touches (287 carries for 1,387 yards, 116 catches for 1,005 yards) and scoring 19 touchdowns.

But McCaffrey missed 13 games in 2020 and 10 games in 2021. Over the last two seasons, McCaffrey has 10 starts, 158 carries, 54 receptions, and has scored eight times. He turns 26 on Tuesday and is hoping to revive his career with a strong season in 2022. If the Carolina Panthers are as bad as they presently appear to be with Sam Darnold at quarterback, could McCaffrey also be headed for a mid-career trade like Faulk?

He has a lot of catching up to do.

From 1998 to 2001, Marshall Faulk made 60 starts and averaged 272 carries for 1,360 yards with 11 touchdowns, plus 84 receptions for 887 yards and 11 more touchdowns. That is 357 touches and 6.3 yards per touch per season.

McCaffrey isn’t even close.

The NFL’s top running back of the era right now is Derrick Henry but he has not been able to challenge the question of whether or not running backs can still handle 350-400 touches in a season. Henry was in a committee with DeMarco Murray for the first few years of his career, not handling more than 200 touches until year three, and not getting 300 touches until year four. He had a career-high 397 touches in 2020, winning AP Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns (his second season in a row leading the NFL in yards and touchdowns), but Henry missed nine games last season.

He also doesn’t have the receiving prowess of players like Faulk and McCaffrey.

Can Henry, now 28, reasonably play another five years in the league?

What do you think? Is it possible for running backs to handle that kind of workload anymore? If not, why isn’t it? If it is presumably “easier” to run in the NFL as defenses load up on more pass-rushing defensive linemen and coverage-specialist linebackers, then why can’t more teams take advantage of high quality rushing abilities? And where are the players who can carry it 200 times and catch it 100 times?

Alvin Kamara seemed headed in that direction but he has not played in 16 games since his rookie campaign, missing a career-high four contests last season. Despite his best efforts, Kamara is nowhere near the abilities of Marshall Faulk.

Could anyone ever be again?